Which Open Source License?

September 9th, 2008 by jeremychone

Which Open Source LicenseFor a commercial entity, building an effective open source strategy can be a relatively daunting task. Open Source strategy discussions tend to revolve around licensing. Typical questions are, ”Should we use dual licensing?,” “Should we use GPL or BSD?,” “What are the risks of GPL?,” “Can the licensing help us drive users to our commercial assets?,” or “What are the competitive risk associated with each type of license?“

Well, while the licensing questions are pertinent and will need to be answered at some point, the real questions are “What? Why? And How much [open]?”

The “What” and “Why” are very dependent on the entity’s business model and should be carefully thought out. Open Source is a useful tool to lower the entry barrier, change product perception, increase adoption, and create awareness. However, it does not come for free, definitely does not reduce engineering cost, and often requires a specific DNA. The key to determining the “What?” is to not only think about what the entity is ready to give to the community, but also, what the community would be interested in taking from the entity. In other words, don’t ask yourself what you can give to the community, but what the community wants to take from you.

The “How much [to open]?” is the main question which will help determine the appropriate license, the challenge being that among your users you will have competitors that you cannot really individualize. To facilitate this thinking process, I made the following matrix which lists the main usage capabilities for the different types of open source licenses.

Which Open Source License


Download” and “Evaluate” are often the easiest ones since most technology companies want their “open” or even proprietary technologies to be freely accessible for evaluation. Obviously, all open source licenses allow these two usages.


The “Deploy” is where most misunderstandings come from and where open source differ the most from proprietary software licensing. For server technologies, all open source licenses (1) allow users to freely build and deploy applications on top of the open source [server] asset without any restrictions on their application licensing. Restriction applies only when redistribution of the asset occurs, and typical end-user usage (over the Internet) does not qualify as asset redistribution. For example, Google is using a highly modified version of Linux (GPL) and has not had to give anything back to the community (Note: Google gave some of its customization back, though). Note that for client side open source components, GPL can be a little bit more complicated (not covered in this post).


Redistribution of an application is where GPL differs the most from other open source license types. GPL is very viral by design, and can be a great tool for an entity wishing to control the redistribution of its open source asset by assuming that many potential customers or distributors will not want to play by the GPL rules. Dual-licensing (GPL + Commercial License) is often used for this purpose by allowing users to opt-out of the GPL licensing restriction if they agree to the commercial terms. There are a lot of caveats to this dual-licensing approach (e.g., open contribution, community uptake, and corporate development opportunities), but it has proven to be working (e.g., MySql). MPL and BSD-like licenses (and in some ways LGPL) are designed to allow free redistribution of the open source asset.


Modification of the open source asset is where BSD-like licenses (Apache, BSD, MIT) differ the most from other ones. All other open source licensing forces modifications to their asset to be submitted back with the same original license, whereas BSD/Apache-like licenses do not have such requirements. I personally think that this is one of the principal reasons why Apache products and assets have been broadly adopted by commercial entities such as Oracle in their commercial offerings.


So, in short, for server-side assets, open source licenses cannot really be used to control deployment, but more redistribution and modification. If there is a good OEM business opportunity, then dual-licensing (i.e. GPL + Commercial) might be an option, but if community and adoption are the principal objectives, the Apache/BSD license types are probably the most effective ones. While GPL might give the most control (in some ironic ways), it might also limit market adoption and business opportunities.

My philosophy is that leadership comes from contribution and not control (i.e. licensing).

(1) GPL V3 has an optional clause forcing the deployed applications to be under GPL as well (this clause is not commonly used).

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17 Responses to “Which Open Source License?”

  1. Renaud Says:

    Thanks, this is the kind of matrix I was looking for.

  2. Clean Red Widgets Says:

    I was involved in a similar kind of evaluation for the organisation I work with. One place where things get cloudy very quick is with Open Source products written in JavaScript.

    You did mention that client side components are not dealth with in this post. When a browser downloads a web page for the user and that webpage has javascript, is this considered deployment or re-distribution, or both? Even worst if the website developers have made modifications to the original javascript product.

  3. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Clean Red Widgets

    Yes, you are spot on, this is the issue with client slide libraries. In short, GPL client licensing for client side can be very confusing for the users and even the library project owner(s) (see ExtJs licensing discussions).

    In short, if you want to maximize the adoption and do not plan to directly monetize the client library, you might want to opt for something like Mozilla Public License or the Apache/BSD/MIT based ones (e.g., jQuery, Flex SDK, and GWT). If you plan to directly monetize library, then, the ExtJs route of creating a confusing but open-looking license might be a efficient option. It will limit your adoption and create some confusion, but if well managed, can yield a study revenue stream.

  4. SalsaBoy's Clean Red Widgets Says:

    An interesting article. I use OpenOffice at home and have worked at an office where they use it exclusively. Does any restriction exist on this type of licensing when used by a commercial business as opposed to individual users? I can tell you that open source licensing is a godsend to those of us who work at least part time, from home.

  5. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @SalsaBoy, OpenSource licenses usually do not put any restriction on end-user usage (individual or business users). Yes, OpenOffice is very good, and btw, Sun did change their license (http://www.openoffice.org/FAQs/license-change.html)

  6. Clean Red Widgets Says:

    That chart is extremely helpful, I have always been confused about which license means which. I’m a little more advanced in the world of open source than the typical person but to the layperson these licenses can be very confusing.

  7. Marco Says:

    useful article
    i am always confused about license

  8. stop being shy Says:

    Man, I dont think I have read a better article on licensing. This stuff always really confused me.

  9. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Clean red widgets guy

    Well, nowadays, if you create an technology for developers (e.g., tools or frameworks) it must have a strong community, and an effective open source strategy is definitely a good way to create one.

  10. Outsourcing Software Company Says:

    Great post. The article is very informative. This really helps us to decide on which licensing structure suites the best. Thanks for sharing the information. Keep up the good work.

  11. Cristi Says:

    Great informative post,hope to see more great articles from you in the future.

  12. Amazon Best Deals Says:

    Good post. I find this post very useful. The information is very important. From students to businessman every one can figure out what license they should get. Thanks for sharing the information.

  13. Buzz News Says:

    Nice article. This will be very useful for many people. I didn’t know which license to buy until I read this. The information is very well displayed. Thanks.

  14. Card Offers Says:

    This explains about it very clearly. Its not a narrow range to discuss in one article though hope you will write more on this subject in future.

  15. Lovelinks Says:

    Good post. This is very useful to most of the people. Sometimes they don’t even know the meaning of their license. It’s always better decide on which license suites you best before buying it. This post explains it very well. Thanks for sharing this useful information with us.

  16. Business Talk Says:

    Your post explains about it very well. so i can understand the difference open source license easily. thanks

  17. Matt Walker Says:


    I’m talking at an event to educate GIS professionals about Open Software, Standards and Data next week and would like to use the matrix in this post in one of my presentations. Would this be OK?